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We can find common ground, but only if we try – Rev. Susan Sparks

Recently, I was in the Atlanta airport waiting on a flight and I noticed two groups of people standing off to the side of the boarding gate. The first was a Muslim woman in full burka with three children between the ages of 3 and 5. The kids, also in traditional clothing, were nestled on the floor watching a video. Next to them was a white woman with a little boy, also about 5. She occasionally eyed the woman in the burka with suspicion.

After a few minutes, when his mother wasn’t watching, the little boy slowly sneaked over behind the other kids and began watching their video. Something funny happened in the piece and he and the other kids started giggling. Without hesitation, he sat down, curled up beside the little girl and kept watching. Without even looking up, the little girl turned the iPhone a bit so he could see it. The moms looked down, looked up at each other, then smiled and shrugged.

Those kids didn’t see the differences — clothes, race, nationality, religion; they saw common ground. And that, my friends, is what could happen in our world. Could happen. But we have to be the ones to make it happen.

Ah, if there was only a video the entire world could gather around, watch and laugh about together. Short of that, let me suggest three other ways we can find common ground, practical ways based on our recent tragic headlines.

Education

This week (and weeks past), we’ve watched as our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico struggle to meet basic needs after the devastating hurricane strikes. We’ve also watched as aid to Puerto Rico has lagged. And more importantly, we’ve seen public outrage over this lack of support lag. Why is this happening? Overt prejudice is certainly one reason. But another is ignorance.

While most everyone knows that our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico are struggling after Hurricane Maria, what most everyone doesn’t seem to know is that these brother and sisters … are American citizens! A recent poll found that only 54 percent of Americans knew that people born in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, are U.S. citizens.

Hel-lo.

Besides being really embarrassing, why does it matter? Two reasons: No. 1, It means one half of Americans think that what happened there is a foreign disaster and not a domestic one, which leads us to problem No. 2: Studies show that people attach an overwhelming priority to problems at home — and that includes prioritizing aid distribution.

There is absolutely no excuse for such ignorance, especially given the access to information these days through the Internet, the media, Amazon.com or the free library system.

Jesus commanded that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and sometimes that may seem a hard road. Our neighbor may seem separated from us by a mountain of differences. They may seem like a foreign nation. However, if we educate ourselves about each other (which might include learning about the states and territories of our own country, or learning about an unfamiliar religion, or someone’s sexual orientation, or a different political party), we will eventually find common ground.

Public conversation

This week, we witnessed a gunman perched on a high floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel take a cache of automatic weapons and systematically kill 59 people and wound more than 525.

Many are once again crying out for public debate on gun control. But rather than engage in debate, gun lobbyists are dismissing the effort at conversation, arguing that it is simply politicizing the tragedy.

Trevor Noah, the comedian and host of The Daily Show, had some thoughts on this. He said: “I wish I had used this logic as a kid when I’d done something wrong, when my mom wanted to ground me. I should have just said, ‘Is this the time, Mom, when we politicize what’s happening right now? This is not the time to talk about my lack of discipline. This is the time for us to unite as a family to focus on the fact that I’m stuck in the kitchen window trying to sneak back in.’”

I can’t help but think about Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-5 : “… with the judgment you make you will be judged. … Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” I’m going to go out on a limb and say, if you applied Jesus’ parable to the gun debate, you might get something like this:

 “I can’t believe the speck in the eye of these gun control advocates. They are politicizing this tragedy by using it to force a debate. OK, yeah11,000 people in the U.S. are killed annually by firearms; and yeah, the U.S. leads every developed country in gun violence; and yeah, America has 4.5 percent of the world’s population, but 50 percent of the civilian-owned guns, and yeah, there are 50,000 more gun shops in this country than McDonald’s; and yeah, gun stocks do tend to rally after shootings. But pushing public debate on gun control during this tragedy is just reprehensible.”

Like in any human dynamic, without conversation, without public debate, we shut ourselves off from the possibility of information, insight and empathy. We shut out the possibility of reconciliation. We shut down the possibility of ever finding common ground.

Overcoming blame

So many of our tragic headlines, including those around racial violence, can be traced not only hate and judgment, but also blame. Case in point: Claireborne P. Ellis, a Klan leader turned civil rights activist. Our church’s Bible study class recently read about his life story as documented through his obit and an NPR interview.

Ellis grew up in poverty in Durham, N.C., in the 1920s and ’30s. The son of a mill worker who was himself a Klan leader, he married at 17, fathered three children young, including a special needs child. Despite working two jobs, he could rarely pay his bills.

He said: “They say abide by the law, go to church, do right and live for the Lord and everything will work out. Well, it didn’t work out. It kept gettin’ worse and worse. I began to get bitter. So I joined the Klan. … It made me feel like somebody.”

Ellis eventually became the leader of the local Klan and battled for years over race issues, including battles with a local desegregation activist, a black woman named Ann Atwater.

For years they fought vicious fights. But then, over time, something happened. Ellis said, “During those days it became clear to me that she [Ann Atwater] had some of the identical problems that I had, and that I’d suffered like she had and what … had I spent all my life fighting people like Ann for?”

It took years, but in the end, Ellis resigned the Klan; he began fighting for desegregation. When he died back in 2005, Ann Atwater spoke at his funeral and said, “God had a plan for both of us.”

I read that obit and immediately thought of Colossians 3:14: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Love is the glue that has the potential to unify the world. And if we can get past our blame, then that love will slowly seep in and bond us back together.

Brothers and sisters, these are glimpses of what could happen in our world. Could happen. But we have to be the ones to make it happen. We have to be the ones to educate ourselves, to engage in public conversation, to transcend blame, and to laugh together. It’s only then, that we will begin to truly heal. It is only then, that we will begin to see common ground.

 

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Personalizing Suffering – Paul Lambert

I want to share a powerful essay from my dear friend Paul Lambert, Co-Producer of The First Wives Club The Musical. It is entitled, “Personalizing ‘Suffering.” Susan Sparks

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The events in Puerto Rico exhibit suffering and misfortune in a way that impacts us all.

Suffering, whether personal or seen from afar, has consequences — it causes us to pause, to lose our edge, and impairs our confidence and momentum. Because of these consequences suffering can make us feel literally stuck and paralyzed until things get better.

“When suffering knocks at your door and you say there’s no seat for you, it tells you not to worry because it’s brought its own stool.” 

People in Puerto Rico have our attention right now, but without a doubt, someone near you is probably suffering, too.

It may be a family member, a relative, a good friend or a co-worker. It may be that they are feeling unconnected or unheard, experiencing an emptiness inside, suffering extreme financial pressure, or suffering from a physical condition they aren’t openly sharing.

Many Americans have been marginalized while they suffer. Let’s start our week this week by committing to being more aware of those suffering (especially those we know). Let’s be more active in comforting them, befriending them, and doing our part in addressing the source of their suffering.

I believe “suffering” is at the center of today’s political friction and discord, because at the heart of the American “value system” is caring for those less fortunate or shamed by unintended circumstances. There is a raging fight between the villains and victims in our society, today. Both political parties have decided it’s time to apply a wrecking ball to what’s going on.

You may be suffering — yourself — today, too. Right where you are. Right now.

The Psalmist has said “My soul is filled with troubles … I am like a warrior without strength … I feel caged in, I cannot escape“ (Psalm 88).

Take a moment and examine your situation. Have you ever thought there may be an upside to suffering? I believe there is.  Discovering things thru suffering may be an important part of preparing for what’s next in your life. While suffering we are open to discoveries that otherwise we wouldn’t be, discoveries that may have a direct effect on our future.

Two great verses for us to keep in mind at times like these are: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11)  and, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil 1:6).

Suffering comes wrapped in many different packages — but in the midst of struggling, feeling defeated, or dealing with unbearable stress and pain — remember God is working.
Corrie ten Boom has some wonderful thoughts on these subjects:

“Don’t bother to give God instructions, just report for duty”
“Make sure that prayer is your steering wheel, not your spare tire
Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

I hope you will reread this blog often to strengthen your faith and be reminded that God is present and at work during your times of suffering. Always remember you are not alone, you are loved and forgiven, and you are meant to move on and get beyond situations that seem intolerable.

Wishing you a courageous week. Your friend, Paul

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Claiming the Past. Discovering the Future: Where to Now – George M. Rossi

Monday, September 25, 2017

I just finished reading the short, softback, 97 page book titled, “Our Father: Discovering Family” witten by Mitch Carnell, Ph.D. It’s a very inspirational and devotional book as he shared his story of overcoming an eyesight disbility and growing up in the racially segregated South in the 1950’s and 60’s. I highly recommend it to you. It’s a honest recounting of the Southern Baptist struggles and his involvement as the Southern Baptists and Cooperative Baptists went their own ways in the 1980’s and 90’s. I lost friends in that divide and fortunately multiplication and growth were secondary outgrowths of that organizational conflict. I guess that’s the silver lining interpretation. He is the founder and CEO of the Charleston Speech and Hearing Center and a Fellow of the American Speech Language and Hearing Association. He hails from Woodruff, SC and he is a longtime member of the First Baptist Church Charleston.
I was baptized and had my first holy communion in the Catholic church in the 1960s. Then in 1982 I had an adult faith experience and was baptized by immersion and joined a Southern Baptist church. The rest is history as they say. I want to integrate Dr. Carnell’s book and story with my own story. We can claim all that God has allowed and brought to our lives, even as we have made personal decisions. Yes, I am a person who really honors and respects humanity’s free will. I think it is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. Even so, there are some things that happen to us, like my infant baptism and first holy communion. I was guided and lead into those experiences by my parents and the larger church. That is the truth.
I invite you and me to own all of our religious and spiritual traditions if that is your desire and will. It is certainly mine. In fact it makes my life so much richer, even complex at times. It’s true in life that we are complex beings with beliefs, values, traditions and worldviews that change.
Most importantly for me, the question is now, “Where to from here?” Once the traditions are owned and integrated then it is my job to move forward, under God’s leading, to be a positive influence in this world. I have choices to make. Where do I want to invest my time, energy, values, beliefs, good works, and educational experiences? I am continually working on that question. Dr. Carnell’s book left me feeling spiritually inspired based on his good works and his life but it also left me asking the question, “Where do I go now? and “How do I take all I have and move into a good and hopeful future?” At the very least I plan to seek God and God’s guidance in answering those questions. I feel like the LORD will lead me just like he lead Dr Carnell and I hope God will lead you too if that is your w

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“Ga-head, Tell Me I’m Unworthy” – Susan Sparks – Shiny Side Up

JUSTICE UNCATEGORIZED POSTED ON SEP 18, 2017 BY SUSAN SPARKS

“Ga-head, Tell Me I’m Unworthy”

This blog was also preached as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. View it on YouTube.

A long time ago, in a land far away . . . I was young. In that time of tender youth, third grade to be exact, I decided to flaunt my budding creative/performer genes and do a book report in front of my class. Feeling that everyone else’s report before me had been lame (at best), I decided to act mine out. And I chose a book – on Elvis.

So here I was standing outside my classroom door, waiting to make my grand entrance, and I glanced at the reflection of myself in the glass doors. The polyester pants, go-go boots, and plastic guitar weren’t that big a deal – but the sideburns, oh yes, the sideburns, they were a problem. I constructed them of cotton balls that I had dyed black with shoe polish and glued to the sides of my face. They may, perhaps, be over the top, I thought to myself.

Before I had time to reconsider, the door opened and our teacher’s voice bellowed out: “Our next book report is by a special guest all the way from Memphis, Tennessee. Boys and girls, please welcome Elvis!”

I took a deep breath and walked into the classroom, strumming the guitar, singing “Hound Dog,” and making a motion that looked like I was doing a hula hoop.

When I finished my grand entrance, I stopped and struck an Elvis-esque pose.  “Thank ya, thank ya vur much.” I was so proud. I thought I had just done the greatest thing ever. But then I came back to Earth and realized that there was utter silence from the class. Then hysterical laughter. And not laughter as in this is funny, but laughter as in she is so weird. And they kept laughing, even the teacher was laughing. My nemesis, Allen Roberts, yelled out, “You’re stupid!” and that’s when Elvis, tearing up, ran out of the room and left the building.

While I got a “B” on the book report (I think out of pity), that experience branded an ominous message into my little 8-year-old brain. Creativity, uniqueness – who I was at my core – was bad. It made me different – and being different meant people would reject you.

My story is rather privileged, as I could camouflage the creativity. But there were other kids in the class who were judged and couldn’t camouflage – like my friend Cassandra who was one of the few black students in the school. She was set apart as different and couldn’t morph or change, and had to deal with the rejection head on.

There are many versions of this story in life, where who we are at our core sets us apart as different. It could be our personality; it could be our inherent gifts; it could be our race, our gender, our language, our religion, our nationality, our sexual orientation. And the world judges different as bad and rejects it.

We’ve all experienced it in some form – some of us on a more privileged level and some of us not. But the result of being different – no matter how we experience it – generates the same obstacle. And that obstacle is shame.

Shame is corrosive, it eats away at us from the inside. It dictates our choices because we treat ourselves as we see ourselves.

If we don’t see ourselves as worthy, then we will drive ourselves into the ground in an attempt to become worthy. We will say yes to everything. We will fight to be the best at everything. We will destroy ourselves in order to be worthy.

Brothers and sisters – my message today is three words: We – are – worthy. Every single one of us is worthy. And here’s three reasons why:

1) Our worth is not based on the judgment of the world.

Just look at God’s words to Samuel: “Do not consider appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7).

2) Diversity is our strength.

Diversity is nature’s strength. We see it from Mount Everest to Death Valley, Pekinese to draft horses, black holes to exploding stars, the Navaho people to the Maasai tribesman in Tanzania. Nature’s ability to change, adapt, and evolve comes from its diversity.

So, too, diversity is our strength — our greatest gift. It’s what sets us apart in the sea of robotic corporate soldiers. It’s what makes each of us irreplaceable.

The tragedy is that in constantly shunning our diverse gifts, we grind down our uniqueness to a smooth, slab of conformity.. It’s like the old saying, “If you try and hammer a round peg into a square hole, you destroy the peg.”

3) Authenticity is our gift – our greatest gift.

The psalmists tell us that. “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

The jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker put it another way. “If you don’t live [the blues], it won’t come out your horn.”

God made us this way; gave all of us fearful and wonderful gifts. Who are we to tell God that we’re not worthy?

I am reminded of the powerful words of Kristin Beck, a retired Navy Seal hero – deployed 13 times over two decades, including stints in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. She received the Bronze Star Medal for valor and the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in combat. She is also transgender.

And when our President announced this summer that the US military would bar transgender people from serving, her response: “Let’s meet face-to-face, then you tell me I’m not worthy.”(As a New Yorker, I imagine her saying in a slightly different way: “Tell him to meet me face-to-face. Then, @!#&(%*# Ga-head, tell me I’m unworthy!”)

When we live into our truth, when we stand firm in the face of judgment, we are a witness and an invitation to others to do the same. Of course, we may never know it. But just because we don’t see a big scoreboard with the names of the people healed, helped by our actions – doesn’t mean they are not there. It’s like the old saying, “The farmer does not put a seed in the ground then scream over it. In faith, he leaves it alone.”

So we plant, we wait, and we live into our truth. We stand firm in the face of judgment, and we offer a witness and an invitation to others to do the same.

This week, when the world starts to tell us that we’re lesser, when we feel ourselves beginning to shrink, pull away, weaken . . .

Remember those words in Jeremiah;

Remember that diversity is our strength and authenticity is our gift;

Remember the image of US Navy Seal hero Kristin Beck, so that when the world comes at us with judgment and shame, we too can stand face-to-face with our critics, and say with power and authority, “Ga-head, tell me I’m unworthy.”

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